The Jewish Nation-State Law has made veteran Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi both worried and ecstatic.
He is worried because he fears it will be used to increase discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens, and he believes it has and will lead to increased violence against them.
But he is also overjoyed that, thanks to what he calls a “neo-fascist law,” persuading the world that Israel is racist – which he sees as a key part of his job – has become easier.
As expected, for both his joys and his fears, Tibi blames his longtime nemesis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But he also tries to make the tougher-to-prove case that the administration of US President Donald Trump bears responsibility as well.
In an interview at his garden apartment in Jerusalem’s upscale Beit Hanina Arab neighborhood Thursday, a day after he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Tibi is eager to explain what he believes are the law’s ramifications, why he did not quit in protest, and how he can call the law apartheid, if he himself sat in the Knesset and voted against it.
Why does the Jewish Nation-State Law, which is completely declarative and the Israel Democracy Institute admits is not a game changer, bother you so much?
I disagree. It is declarative but also practical. Clause seven says Jewish settlement is a national interest. The bill harms Arabs in five ways:
1. With housing, such as obtaining land and getting new communities built, which since 1948 has not happened anyway. There hasn’t been a new community built for Arabs since Israel was founded in the Galilee or in the Triangle, even though Arabs and Jews have the same amount of babies. For Jews, they build communities. For Arabs, they destroy communities, like Umm al-Hiran.
2. Arabic was an official language, and it became a “special language.”
3. When they say Jews have collective rights and Arabs don’t, it harms us. We are 20% of the population. We didn’t fall from the sky. We were here before. We are a minority group and should have national rights as a minority group. Individual rights come as a result of national rights, and this law destroys the connection between the individual and the national minority he belongs to.
4. It says Jerusalem will be the undivided capital of Israel forever. Our view is different: that east Jerusalem was captured and will be the capital of a Palestinian state.
5. This destroys the chance of two states, because of what it says about Jerusalem and encouraging settlements.
Declaratively, it downgrades the Arab citizens’ status by creating two groups of citizens: Jews with all the rights and benefits and resources, and another: Arabs and Druze, whose rights are removed and are unequal.
Haven’t you gone too far in comparing the law to apartheid South Africa?
The law is an apartheid law that can lead the way to more laws of apartheid. Arabs and Jews can still go on the same bus and go to the same university. But there are already roads they cannot both drive on and different courts for Jews and Arabs in the territories. Now discrimination is becoming constitutional. It was bad before the law. There was always discrimination that was practical, due to some 50 laws that discriminate. But this is a turning point, because as a Basic Law, it is constitutional. Israel is indeed still Jewish and democratic, but it’s democratic for Jews and Jewish for Arabs. That is why there is an appeal to the Supreme Court and demonstrations that Jews attended.
Isn’t it hypocritical that you are an elected official calling Israel apartheid when there were no blacks in the parliament in apartheid South Africa?
In South Africa, there was initially a small representation of blacks and those called colored people, but it was not one person, one vote. In 1960 blacks were no longer permitted in the parliament. In 1968 colored people were also excluded. The right to take part in elections and to be elected is an important right, but not the only right and not the main element. The US had a black president recently, but in America, there is still equality by law and inequality in practice.
How can you justify going to international bodies and requesting condemnation of the country whose parliament you serve in?
Netanyahu may think he is the state, but there is still a difference between the government and the state. It is our duty as elected officials to go to the international community and explain about the Jewish state law, the unrecognized villages of Bedouin, house demolitions, and discrimination. The world cares about minorities. Why not care about Arabs in Israel? Because Netanyahu scares them?
Even before the Joint List was founded, I explained our position. In 2016, I met with an advisor to [then-US president Barack] Obama in the White House, with congressmen and with an undersecretary in the State Department in 2016.
Other opposition politicians meet world leaders, but they don’t cross what are seen as redlines. Why does this happen with Arab MKs?
What Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid can do, Ahmad Tibi and Yousef Jabareen can do. Livni goes to the UN and meets world leaders and criticizes government policies. Lapid goes and speaks, sometimes for the government policies and sometimes to the Right of them, like he did about getting the US to recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan, but no one calls him a traitor. MKs lobbied in Congress for settlements. Why can’t Arab MKs lobby?
In November 2017, I spoke at the UN and at the EU Parliament in Brussels against the Nation-State Law before it passed. I have written in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the LA Times and Le Monde to explain why Israel’s policies are wrong. I meet Jewish leaders in the US. They also have criticism of Israel’s policies. I told the French: the relations of our countries are based on justice and equality – does this law fit with justice and equality?
Criticism is understood, but isn’t asking for condemnation illegitimate?
No. I am in favor of sanctions on Israel due to the settlements, because they violate international law. I want world countries and international NGOs to pressure Israel on the Jewish state law. I and my colleagues in the Joint List will be happy if the EU condemns Israel for its policies, including the Jewish state law.
That makes us different than the rest of the opposition. We want the condemnation to be public and not just in private conversations. Unlike the rest of the opposition, we do vote no-confidence in Netanyahu when he is abroad.
Why do you think Netanyahu was able to pass the Jewish Nation-State Law now?
There are five reasons he did it now:
1. We are ahead of elections, and he will be competing with Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett for votes, so it helps him to make the Arabs the sacrificial lamb.
2. He has support from the White House to do what he is doing from the three musketeers, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Daniel Friedman, who are closest ideologically to Bayit Yehudi or the right end of Likud. That is why there has been no criticism from the White House. That silence means agreement. And even before the law passed, Greenblatt asked the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
3. The Right’s rise in Europe – Netanyahu’s friends in Hungary and Poland who have similar neo-fascist laws.
4. The weakness of the Arab world that is fighting each other, and the split among the Palestinians, which weakens them.
5. Netanyahu reads the views in Israel, which are more right-wing and extremist than ever. Racism has become mainstream in Israel, including in the political system.
There has been criticism of Abbas by your Joint List colleague, Haneen Zoabi, on how he has handled the deal Israel is reaching with Hamas about Gaza. Do you also have criticism of Abbas?
I don’t want to address her. The split between Fatah and Hamas harms the Palestinian people. Mistakes are being made by all sides. I want there to be elections among the Palestinians to end the split, because the talk of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is taking too long.
Abbas is doing wonderful diplomatic work, and I appreciate his courage in rejecting Trump and his associates and saying no to “the ultimate deal.” It’s not a deal. It’s an attempt to dictate, to destroy the Palestinian national cause.
But aren’t friends of the Palestinians telling them that they made a mistake by not accepting the offer then-prime minister Ehud Olmert made 10 years ago, and rejecting a deal now could be another mistake?
The proposals of Olmert were indeed the most far-reaching ever, but they still weren’t the minimum a Palestinian leader could accept. The Old City was internationalized in his offer, not Palestinian. So Abbas asked for more time. It was wrong to negotiate with Olmert when he was a lame duck. But even Olmert said Abbas didn’t say no.
If Netanyahu puts forth a proposal for ending the occupation on the 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as its capital, Abbas will sign it. But the chance of Netanyahu doing that are the same chance as him endorsing Naftali Bennett to be prime minister. If the Palestinians are not offered the minimum, it won’t be accepted. They won’t accept less than a full state on 1967 borders, which is a very painful compromise for Palestinians, because it is 22% of the Palestinian homeland.
Can there still be a Palestinian state, where they would receive at least what was offered by Olmert?
The Palestinians have been through the Nakba, occupation and other disasters. All Palestinian ministers accept two states. Find one Israeli minister who backs a Palestinian state. When Netanyahu said he supported a Palestinian state, if he was connected to a polygraph, it would have exploded.
Netanyahu is temporary, and so is Trump. But the Palestinian people will still be there and so will their narrative, and it will prevail. A nation cannot be beaten by the Nation-State Law or a cruel and hostile step to the Palestinian people like stopping funding to UNRWA.
The prime minister has two options: one or two states. He picks neither, the status quo. Netanyahu destroyed the two-state solution. Trump, who in his press conference with Netanyahu did not seem to care whether there would be one or two states, is helping him kick at the corpse. Lately, we have heard Trump quoted saying that if there will be one state, its prime minister would be named Mohammed. He was confused. It would be Ahmad.
The Joint List released a statement blaming Netanyahu for the violence against Arabs on the beach last weekend. Isn’t that going too far?
If the victims had been Jews, Netanyahu would have definitely said something about it. I have no doubt that Tourism Minister Yariv Levin calling the MKs in our faction traitors led to the attack. I expect violence to increase. And yes, Netanyahu is responsible.
Why are you not quitting the Knesset due to the Nation-State Law, when people have called for Arab MKs to resign?
There were indeed such calls. Some said we should quit permanently. Some said quit and come back next term. Some said suspend yourselves for a month. Some said stay and fight.
Resignation is a key democratic tool, and it must be used with the right timing. I don’t think this is the right case. If we got 16 and not 13 seats, if we really came in droves to vote as Netanyahu said we did, I don’t think Netanyahu would be prime minister, and the Nation-State Law wouldn’t have come to the world. We did stop the Muezzin law, which would have been protested more. I stopped it with [United Torah Judaism MK Moshe] Gafni and Shas. This is a success. It is important that there be elected representation for the sector.
[Defense Minister Avigdor] Liberman raised the threshold to get rid of us from the Knesset. If we quit, he will dance, because he would have been given a gift. The real response to the Nation-State Law is to raise Arab voter turnout from 64% to 74%.
Do you think there are any positives that came out from the Nation-State Law, and the discussion surrounding it, at all?
We will work to cancel it in the next Knesset. But it could be a blessing in disguise. I present the law to diplomats and academics because it makes my work easier. Also, getting 55 votes versus 62 is an accomplishment. And the demonstrations with thousands of Jews coming together with the Druze and Arabs – that can be built on for the future. That is important, and this struggle will continue. We in the opposition disagree on many issues, but we agree that the Nation-State Law should be canceled, and we will win together against racism and discrimination.